August 12, 2010

Spheres of Influence

Some time ago, I had an opportunity to do a silent five-day retreat at a Benedictine monastery. In the past, I had done long meditation retreats of a Buddhist nature, but I had never done anything in a Christian context before, so I decided I should give it a try.

The monastery, which I’ll call Our Lady of Silence, was located in the back woods of Mexico, in the middle of nowhere. The grounds were incredibly beautiful, dotted with agave and cactus, nopal and mesquite. Burros and sheep wandered across the landscape, which was so quiet you could almost hear the butterflies winging past you. Except for the occasional hum of crickets, the stillness was literally absolute.

This beauty extended to the architecture as well. The new church, cloister, and refectory were built only a few years ago, with a kind of simple, modern design that nevertheless captured the harmony of the Middle Ages, complete with wooden beams and stained glass. Seven monks and a priest constituted the permanent residents; most of them were in their late twenties. At one point, I remember looking across the table at one older monk, with his cropped hair, carefully trimmed beard, and pensive aura, and thinking that I must have seen him before, in some medieval woodcut.

Hours are observed here with great regularity: Matins at 4:30 a.m., Lauds at 6:30, mass at 7, breakfast at 8, Terce at 8:50, lunch at 1:25 p.m., Nones at 2:30, Vespers at 5:30, dinner at 6:45, Compline at 8:10. I went to Vespers every day; the chanting of the monks was so gentle, it was as though they were singing love songs, like the troubadours of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

And it was, in fact, like living during that time; really, like living in a kind of glass sphere. No outside news entered the monastery. There was no TV or radio, no newspapers or journals of any kind. I wondered if the monks knew who the current president of Mexico was, let alone of the United States.

I had brought a couple of books of a spiritual nature along with me to read, but other than that, I had decided to follow the monastic example and stay cut off from the outside world: no magazines, history books, transistor radios, or anything of the kind. As a result, the silence, and the empty space, got filled up with the contents of my psyche. Material spontaneously started drifting upward, as it were. Within two hours of arriving at the monastery I had a major breakthrough, unraveling something that I had been emotionally wrestling with for several weeks.

Two other experiences stand out. One was coming into the refectory at dinner and sitting down in front of what looked like a blue corn patty, mixed in with nopal. As I picked up my knife and fork, one of the monks slipped a CD of Ave Maria into the stereo system. The sounds filled the hall; I wavered, suddenly on the verge of tears, not able to eat for two or three minutes. (I later learned that the monks were worried I might be staging a protest against the food. The patty did, in fact, require a large dollop of salsa roja in order to liven it up.)

The second event consisted of “accidentally” locking myself out of my cell at 6:20 in the morning, on the way to the bathroom. My first reaction was: Oh dammit to hell. But then I was grateful that I was dressed and wearing clogs, and carrying a flashlight; it could have been much worse. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to put on my glasses, and I am terribly nearsighted. I also realized that this annoying event was probably not an accident: I had been embroiled in identity issues for three days now, and keys are a symbol of that. Whenever these types of issues arise for me, I typically lose my keys or wallet, or lock myself out of my car, and/or have a dream about these things. I should have known, I thought. In any case, what was there to do, in the near-freezing cold, except climb the hill up to the church and sit through Lauds and the mass? At least, I consoled myself, it was warm in the church.

I had been to mass only once before in my life, Christmas Eve 1973, at the Église St.-Séverin in Paris, a thirteenth-century structure that sits adjacent to the Sorbonne. It had been exquisite; it’s a wonder I didn’t convert to Catholicism right then and there (my complete atheism notwithstanding). The mass at the monastery was also “Parisian,” but in a rather different way: without my glasses, I couldn’t see much beyond blobs of color–an Impressionist mass, as it were. When it was over, I approached one of the monks with my problem, and he immediately got the master key and let me back into my cell.

The day before, I had been rereading one of the books I brought with me, What We May Be, by Piero Ferrucci. Ferrucci is an Italian psychotherapist, a student of Roberto Assagioli, who founded a school and technique known as Psychosynthesis. It has much in common with Jungian analysis, in fact. The section I had been reading deals with beauty:

Music [he writes] has a powerful effect on several bodily
rhythms and functions and on psychological states...neural
networks in the brain may be responsive to harmonic principles
in general. And there is such a factor within us as an “inbuilt
urge to maintain a state of intellectual and aesthetic order
and harmonic balance, essential to mental health.”
But we do not need research to know that the
magnificence of a cathedral’s rose window, the design of
Celtic manuscripts, a flower in full bloom, or the perfect
geometry of a Greek temple does not leave us unaffected.
And the moment we let ourselves be touched by beauty, that
part of us which has been badly bruised or even shattered by
the events of life may begin to be revitalized. At that moment
a true victory takes place–a victory over discouragement, a
positive affirmation against resigning ourselves to the process
of crystallization and death. That victory is also a step forward in
our growth in a very precise and literal sense, for the moment we
fully appreciate beauty we become more than we were. We live
in a moment of pure psychological health.
We effortlessly build a
stronghold against the negative pressures that life inevitably brings.
But that is not all, for all stimuli–beautiful or ugly–sink into
the unconscious, where their influence becomes less immediate,
but more powerful and pervasive....
When stimuli of the same kind are repeated a number of
times–as in the case of the 15,000 killings the average American
adolescent has seen on TV*–their effects multiply and come to
generate a real psychological climate in the inner world of the
We can be[come] exposed to what Assagioli called “psychic
smog”–the prevailing mass of free-floating psychological poisons....

Earlier I referred to the monastery as a kind of glass sphere, hermetically sealed. If it keeps out the news of the modern world, it also keeps out the garbage of that world as well. It is a sphere of harmony, of beauty, designed to bring peace to the soul. As for the modern world, in particular the America of endless violence and “psychic smog,” Ferrucci follows up the above quotation with a reference to a famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch, in which the sixteenth-century artist “depicts the damned of Hell as being enveloped by an opaque crystal ball, impeding all communication with the outside world.”

And this is, very unfortunately, a fair description of the United States. The fact is that Americans live in a kind of hologram, or glass sphere with mirroring on the inside. Literally every thought they have is on the order of a programmed response, dating from the early years of the Republic: “chosen people,” “City on a Hill,” “endless frontier,” “rugged individualism,” and so on. For more than two centuries now, the same slogans and buzzwords have bounced around inside the sphere, mirroring and confirming each other. Contradictory information–represented, for example, by the analysis of that sphere and its mental processes–is never allowed to get through in any significant way. (There are hundreds of examples of this: Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams, Chris Hedges, etc. etc. A recent example is Walter Hixson’s The Myth of American Diplomacy, an attack on the sphere so massive in scope, and so fundamental, that only a tiny handful of Americans would be able to read it without having a nervous breakdown. It got very few reviews.) The result is the smog or poison Assagioli talks about: a culture that is not merely stupid (and stupefied), but remarkably violent, all the while celebrating how “superior” it is to all the rest–and certainly, to some medieval throwback in the hinterland of Mexico, right? In fact, when you think about it, American society is no less hermetically sealed than the world of a medieval monastery; only the content is different.

I couldn’t help remembering a film I had seen shortly before coming to the monastery, Crossing Over, about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its persecution of alien residents, legal as well as illegal. But it proves to be about much more than the daily activities of the ICE. By the end of the film, you realize that you have been watching an X-ray of the American soul, and you are struck dumb by how violent it is, down to its very core. Destructive as well as self-destructive, it reflects a culture in a state of fear, on its last legs, lashing out at helpless victims and imaginary enemies alike. The “toxic cloud” Don DeLillo described many years ago in his brilliant novel, White Noise, now seems to have arrived in full force. This is psychological poison at its worst (or close to it).

I left Our Lady of Silence determined to carry the silence with me into my daily life: gardening, walking, meditating more, whatever. But the key issue, of course, is not my own personal life, but the dichotomy, the problem of the two separate spheres. Very few of us are cut out to live in a monastery, after all, myself included. All beauty aside, it’s not a solution for the modern world. Yet what kind of solution–to anything–is U.S. corporate-commercial culture? That much of the world seeks to emulate it doesn’t change the fact that it amounts to little more than trash, “psychic smog” that is slowly (and sometimes rapidly) killing off its inhabitants (who nevertheless can’t seem to get enough of it). If there is a third sphere, a serious institutional alternative to these two that exists in practice, not just theory, I have yet to see it. And without that, what kind of future do we finally have?

*Written ca. 1980; we can expect that the current number is by now four or five times that amount, especially if we add in input from movies, DVD’s, computer games, and the Internet.

©Morris Berman, 2010


Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

Dr. B,

moving, beautiful essay. I will read this one many times. I had the privilege of spending five days at a monastery for a personal retreat. This was nearly two years ago, and it had a profound effect on me. I inquired about the monastic life afterwards, and although I was acutely aware that I was not cut out to be a monk, I tried to carry the quiet and inner peace with me ever after. Sometimes when I feel like I am under psychological attack and the smog inside the sphere is becoming asphyxiating, I try to go to that enclave in my heart that I felt when I was at the monastery, that silence...although I must admit, it becomes more and more difficult as time goes on.

This essay was timely for me as well, as just a few days ago I was wrestling with a personal issue, and realized that I was so frustrated with things that I have become and angry person. Always on the defensive, the tension leaves little space for happiness. Living in this country has done great spiritual and psychological damage to me, and thinking about the monastery and recently travelling abroad shows the depth of that hurt.

Reading your discussing of experiencing beauty as curative was a very welcome experience. Thank you, Maestro.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

First of all, I've decided to address you as Doctor from now on; your writing is certainly nourishment for the soul. And, when your Amazon book comes out and it sells more than 42 copies, don't let it go to your head: I'm sure some of us will be purchasing multiple copies to pass along to our friends.

This post reminded me of an article I read in the newspaper recently. A resident of Dallas recreated the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst Castle, England in her backyard. The photo of her garden almost brought me to tears; its harmony in such stark contrast to my daily surroundings. There are sanctuaries for the soul, from gardens to cathedrals to museums. But we are not allowed to live there.

P.S. For another film about illegal immigrants, as well as the saving grace of music, I recommend "The Visitor", starring Richard Jenkins.

2:59 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

A beautiful & moving post!

And "beautiful" is the word that stays with me -- rather, the lack of the Beautiful in modern culture. I'm sure I've said this before, but I think there's a very real hunger for beauty today. Not mere surface prettiness, but something deeper, something that requires focus & attention, strong enough to tear us away from the reflective interior of the opaque sphere.

For me, something as simple as putting a birdbath by a back window has made me really see the birds that frequent it -- their vivid colors, their distinct personalities, the very "livingness" of them, so to speak. To see four blue jays in a circle around the water, and suddenly have a brilliant cardinal plunge into their midst, is an astonishing sight. Just watching them this way makes me realize on a visceral level that they are living creatures, with entire lives of their own. How am I so different?

It's cutting through the "psychic smog" that's so difficult for so many people, isn't it? We're born into it & take it for granted as the norm -- younger people even more so. Just like fish in polluted water, I suppose. And consciously removing yourself from it is seen as being just as crazy, maybe even fatal, as a fish removing itself from that water.

And it's not as if we haven't always known this. Plato recommends exposing children to the beautiful & harmonious from an early age, to shape both mind & character. In the 1960s we said, "You are what you eat." Today, "Garbage in, garbage out."

I spoke of a hunger for beauty. Let me amend that with a hunger for truth. People are starving for both, yet they've been trained -- programmed -- to avoid what they need, and crave what makes their hunger worse.

But as you say, much of this is personal. That may be necessary for personal survival & sanity, but what of the culture at large?

Your post has given me a lot to contemplate. I'll be eager to see how others respond to it, and await a fruitful discussion here.

9:22 AM  
Blogger heather said...

What a wonderful essay. Though I have never been to a monastery just taking a long walk well off the beaten path can do many liberating things to the human soul. Many have always wondered how I could sit in a silent room and just read, paint, or just be alone with my thoughts. I suppose this is quite hard for most.
I moved to the state of Pa. when I was still in grammar school. With all of it's God fearing, guns, beer, football, wrestling, football loving culture, it is actually quite a beautiful state. As a kid I used to enjoy walking out into the woods during spring and fall and "try" to do homework on some fallen tree. Emphasis on try, sometimes it wood be just way to beautiful. It's like having the Fourth of July in October and April. At one point I had stopped doing that and just decided to go for along walk after school, sometimes two or three depending on how difficult my assignments were. The answers would sometimes come to me and I would hate my teachers less. Over the summer months I would often pick quarter sized (and bigger) blackberries not like those tiny flavorless ones in the store.
Whenever I'm back there I still like to take long silent walks, though in recent years I've resorted to carrying an old axe handle and a cell phone, do to the fact that one neighbor has since gotten a pit bull which isn't nice.
The Bosch tryptic has always been one of my favorite pieces of art. America is becoming more and more like the Hell scene, they live in a bubble. Like many of my age group I use Facebook. Through that I have come in "contact" with many of my former classmates. Too many than I care to mention still live within a twenty mile radius from where they grew up. They never left, expect for one of the three local colleges, the military,or the occasional visit to the typical tourist spots like Jamaica or Mexico (the beaches of course). I have cousin who's about to go to college, of course the college is less than half an hour away from home. Recently she had posted about how bored she had gotten going on a walk with her class to identify trees and birds were. She said she'd rather be on the back of a motorcycle. I'm not sure how I'm related to her anymore.
You had mentioned some of the slogans that people had said in the past that are still said. Well being female there are two in particular slogans that have really irked me this past decade or so when one is describing the latest female pop star "pushing the envelope" and "expressing her sexuality". Everyone that has ever said them thinks they are smart whenever they say them.
Living a more peaceful life would cause many Americans to have a nervous breakdown. Did it never occur to you that maybe a nervous breakdown might be what is needed for the first axe to be swung at the wall.
I no longer live in the country, though I'm long over due to pay my father a visit. Maybe I'll go out there and find some of those delicious blackberries that I love so much. My husband is long over due for a pie and I'm over due for a walk. Peace

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Tim, and friends:

RE: the hunger for beauty, and our programming to avoid it

Check out Piero Ferrucci's recent book, "Beauty and the Soul", and his website based on the book:

He writes, "I have also noticed, oddly enough, that we are often afraid of beauty. Deep down we know that if we were really to surrender to it, it might radically change our lives."

And we can't have *that*. We need to stay safe inside the bubble.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Beautiful, and painful to read.

Along with the healing grace of physical beauty in our surroundings, there's another element to the monastic life that's important I believe. And that's the simplicity and lack of clutter in their lives. They've reduced their needs to what's truly important and refused to allow excess to distract them. We're smothered by so much to organize, maintain and keep up with. It's a hard thing to do but I find the more stuff I shed, the happier I am.

I've been to one Buddist retreat about 15 years ago in Northern California and one day was in silence and we were also told not to make eye contact with others. It was amazing how much social pressure I felt (and didn't even realize) when I was in a group to keep the conversation going, be pleasant, etc. and the toll it takes to maintain this. I don't want to be a hermit or a jerk to others but I found "a Noble Silence" is a profound experience, at least for me.

A movie I recently saw, A Winter's Bone, is the opposite side of this coin. It's filmed in rural Missouri and the ugliness in the people's surroundings contribute, I think, to the ugliness in their lives. The only natural beauty is a stand of trees close by and that's eventually destroyed for cash. It will take years to restore the harmony, if it's ever even attempted.

I've ordered a copy of What We May Be and would like to recommend Rollo May's Our Quest for Beauty. I was given a copy about 3 years ago and refer to it often.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Heather, welcome!

I heartily second the recommendations of The Visitor & My Quest For Beauty. Art, I'm looking up Beauty and the Soul today.

Let me share a quote from writer Michael Ventura:

"It is criminal to counsel despair," James Baldwin wrote. I beg you not to mistake these thoughts for despair, and not to use these words to excuse your own despair. I am the child of an explosion, and the light in my eyes began as the light of an explosion. Yes. But despair is not an option. Despair is safe, because it requires nothing of us; beauty, on the other hand, is dangerous; it's scary to keep alive our sense of beauty; because beauty reminds us of possibilities that are frightfully difficult to live up to, live into. We cannot excuse ourselves from responsibility. If we are tainted with each other's crimes, if our words are stained with bloodshed, then beauty -- yes: beauty -- becomes all the more our responsibility. The most powerful forces in the world are bent upon destruction of every kind, and yet beauty persists. Mercy, tenderness, gentleness, concern, regard, the poetry of life -- human beauty. Nothing "official" is on its side so we, very unofficially, must be. Nothing we call "power" supports it -- so how strong must human beauty be, really, to persist unaided, largely unheralded, and with nothing but itself to rely upon? We cannot be deceived by the "power" that poses as power, when the power of beauty is evidenced precisely because it persists in spite of everything and without protection.

The complete essay is at:

This discussion in particular has had me thinking constantly for the past couple of days!

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

Hello Tim, Art...Tim, excellent quote and recommendation! This essay has stayed with me as well. I recall reading "In the Spirit of Happiness" by the monks of New Skete, and it brought back alot of the feelings that I had when I was at the monastery. It is a beautiful work, and it discusses the happiness associated with the monastic life, and how a large part of that life involves the appreciation of beauty in nature, an beauty as created by man in the form of music, food, and love. I think I will read the book again soon.

Great discussion here, guys. This blog is a welcome place in my life; thank you Dr. Berman and everyone that contributes.

8:56 PM  

Hola Mauricio: May I say something in spanish please?:

El problema de “Estados Unidos”, es que quiere a “todos” los estados, unidos.

Todos los estados viviendo en su monasterio sobre su colina elegida, cual palacio de espejos y jardines domados, que le temerá a otros mundos hasta que no queden otros mundos.

Y allí, "the world united" nos daremos cuenta que ese monasterio que nos salvó de una supuesta amenaza, era tan solo una cárcel que elegimos por opción.

Un abrazo amigo, y que viva “the real gold!”

9:39 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hola Andres,

Y gracias por escribir. Yes, "fortress America" is a very strange place, I agree. Lastima, that most chilenos think we are a model worth emulating. Perhaps you can work on changing their minds.

Mira, you are an architect: Have you ever seen a book by the Swiss artist Jorg Muller, "The Changing City"? It consists of 8 plates of a typical Swiss or German town as it evolved under the pressures of technology and market capitalism during 1953-76. By the last plate, the town has lost all character and purpose; it's just elite hotels, parking garages, and a superhighway. Why don't you get a copy (English edition published by Atheneum in 1977) and start showing it to your countrymen, and ask them: "You think this is progress?"

Abrazos, amigo-

11:02 AM  

Mauricio, yes Jorg Muller

Here is a link of one of his series of sketches, that shows an example of "progress", if we can call it that way:

Maybe what NY could have been and now is?

Very interesting subject, it reminds me, you wrote about Portland as a good US urban example in Dark Ages, which I found very interesting, although I imagine now you have even better insights with your expperience en mexico? The Lacuna (B.K.) you liked, sounds like a book that warmly "tastes" that lost heart of lonely towns.

thanks for the referance amigo,

i'd love to read a new vision of: "The Real Gold", is there any chance you are preparing something on Guanajuato? that would be great.

take care, un abrazo

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman and friends,

Based on Susan's recommendation, I looked up Rollo May's "My Quest for Beauty" on Amazon. And what did I find? A review of the book by none other than Tim Lukeman. (My goodness, Tim, you've written a lot of book, film, and music reviews!)

MB, would you speak to the differences between May's existential psychology (more horizontal, perhaps) and Ferrucci's Psychosynthesis (more vertical, definitely)? How does Psychosynthesis stand up against older spiritual traditions like Buddhism?

3:13 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Jesus Art,

U ask the most comprehensive questions! Got 6 hours?

So, the brief version. Rollo and I were good friends during the last 2 yrs of his life. We usta get invited to these New Age conferences, and sit there and roll our eyes together as these egotistical clowns would deliver 90-min lectures on how vertical experience enabled them to transcend their egos (I'm not kidding). I was too polite to ask Rollo directly, "Would it be wrong of me to pee on their shoes?" (Which I'm sure were Guccis, BTW; the guru business is quite lucrative.)

Yes, Jung and Psychosynthesis etc. are in the vertical tradition, but I don' mind a little injection of it now and then. For example, I do pay attention to my dreams, try to incorporate the messages into my life. Ferrucci has some great visualizations and meditations I like to do from time to time, just to tune in to what's going on w/me. (I love "The Temple of Silence," for example.) The real danger w/the vertical or shamanic tradition is that it can mesmerize the person, take them over; it uses them, when they shd be using it. The horizontal is where it's at, to my mind; but it's not particularly sexy...altho if u do it rt, it can be. Anyway, as I said, this is the short version of a very long answer.


9:57 PM  
Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

MB, What a wonderful description of the experience of visiting a monastery of any tradition. The silence is the hushing up of the white noise, at least from the input side (the psychic smog, the infinitely reinforcing echo chamber you realize society to be), and then you notice the internal white noise continuing even without stimulus for a while, before falling away to reveal some clarity and possibly luminousness.

This should validate the sanity that led you to move to Mexico, which is automatically halfway to a monastery anyway (even with this damned internet). I think it was inevitable that you eventually went to one for an extended period, and not surprised at the profundity of your breakthroughs and insights.

I am reading your post as I, a long-time practicing Buddhist who has done several short and medium programs in such places, as well as two month-long ones, look forward to something as simple as a day on a large lake I just booked. I live in the same white noise, and contribute to it with letters to the editor,listening to NPR, and glossing several online news sources. That and fixing up a flooded rental house all summer has gotten me too grounded in the material realm. The cicadas in the trees along the shores will be singing Vespers of silence for me, too.

10:14 PM  
Blogger zinga said...

I am mother to a 7 year old daughter who insist on it and will not compromise. Your essay made me think that she could have some internal smog filter and is trying for dear life to hold on to as much beauty as she possibly can.

Mothering her has been and will continue to be a challenge in this culture. Just last night we went to movie night at our local art museum. It was a beautiful summer night and the museum grounds are always a delight. The movie last night was the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and from the first frame, my daughter was not having it. I think she could sense what was to come. My husband and I coaxed her into watching half the movie but had to leave because she was having a melt down. She explained to us that she understood it is only a cartoon and that it is fiction but she said it was too mean and violent and it did not have to be that way because the book was not that way.

Now, Roald Dahl, is one of her favorite authors and she loved the book. The movie, however, was so full of gratuitous violence that it freaked her out.

She refuses to be friends or even talk to kids who are mean. You have to be kind and gentle to be her friend. She has always been like this. I have had countless conversations with teachers over the years about what they consider to be her poor social skills. In their opinion, for her age she is too selective in choosing who to socialize with and besides they can't take her to the movies because she freaks out while younger kids are enjoying themselves. It doesn't matter to these teachers that she is way ahead of the other kids in reading, writing and math and is curios and has a hunger for learning. I guess they see her as just plain weird.

After reading your essay, I will no longer be telling her that she has to toughen up. Instead, I will just encourage her to filter out all that smog and to hold on to that desire for beauty for as long as she is able to.

Thanks for the inspiration.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

Dr. Berman,
Rollo May was one of the inspirations for me when I decided to return to school and become a counselor. His theories and my readings of his recommendations have really been the groundwork of my approach. May's works, as well as Erickson's, Frankl's, et al, were far more helpful than anything they taught me in school. The practice at which I am working specializes in a ex-convict poplution, and unfortunately, we rarely get to delve into the existential stuff (it's alot more cognitive-behavioral, as you can imagine - at least that's what I am supposed to be working on, for reimbursement purposes, of course), but it's always there. For some of the individuals I serve, when they start to have insight into their behaviors, the big questions start to come up, and for some of them, these are things they have never faced. I am always amazed to see individuals in their middle or later years become quite uncomfortable or even terrified when they start feeling meaninglessness or they realize that their life is finite and they have lived according to wish fulfillment, often at the expense of others. I always go back to May's idea of the importance of caring for others. Some (most) of these guys won't ever get that far, but it's very rewarding when some of them do.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Zinga,

You might think of leaving the country. If your daughter has kindness as a criterion for friendship, she's going to be unbearably lonely here. One of the amazing things about the sheer viciousness of American culture (on a daily basis, and in day-to-day interactions), is that it is oblivious to its own viciousness. Since most Americans have no pt of comparison, they think that what is going on around them is a world norm. (Of course, since the US exports its "culture" to remote villages in New Zealand or wherever, it may indeed become the world norm. God help us.) But your daughter's instincts are correct: why be socialized into dreck?

If you are going to stay here, however, there is going to have to be some way that she learns to guard her flanks. Yrs ago I was a counselor in a Montessori schl for 3-yr-olds, and I remember another counselor saying to me: "Jesus, these kids are going to all have nervous breakdowns around age 13, when they learn that the real world doesn't operate this way." It's either leave the country, or innoculate her with the American virus.

2nd: check out a film called "Phoebe in Wonderland"; this cd be very helpful to you.

Finally: I suggest getting in touch with the Parent Coaching Institute, esp. Gloria DeGaetano (you might wanna read some of her bks as well). Use my name; I did a workshop for them a few yrs ago, she might remember me. Tell her abt the situation with your daughter, and ask her if the PCI can help.

Save that kid!

And thanks for writing.


5:51 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I'm relieved you weren't too hard on Psychosynthesis. The more chaotic life becomes, the more I'm drawn to the "transpersonal". A more horizontal, animistic spirituality may be the most healthy. But if the "higher self" can be experienced without God and power worshipping, then it's most welcome. Of course, all this is just a way of talking, of map-making. I need to spend more time in silence.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I think the crucial problem w/the transpersonal stuff is the absence of a grounding mechanism, such as chopped liver. If you read their lit carefully, they simply never mention it, which to me is a real red flag. In the horizontal tradition, however, delicatessens figure quite prominently. The choice is obvious.


9:18 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I’m confused. You seem to place shamanism in the “vertical” tradition which happens a lot, no thanks to Eliade. Are you relying on the typical religious template that was superimposed on shamanic activity by anthropologists? In REW I think you proposed that the sacred is simply the world as it is, which is from my perspective much more shamanic than the more common view of shamanism as a primitive religion.

An awakening can be mesmerizing, yes, but does it follow that the continuing work is not grounded? I can think of nothing more grounding, centered and pragmatic than shamanic work because it remains connected and merged with the biological world that sustains all life. God and the upper world are just not there. When Narby asked an Amazonian shaman how he learned the right combination for his Ayahuasca brew his answer was “the plant told me.” Where’s the verticality there?

Yes, neoshamanism floats, thanks to Harner’s unwillingness to even discuss comparisons with, and separate from, various Psychological frameworks. (preceded by Castaneda’s bs) For that reason it has been subsumed into the flabby, new age fruit salad. Good for workshop attendance, clearly. The books, the gurus, the seminars, etc. I’d like to piss on a few shoes myself. I have students who have been to Africa, Mongolia, Peru, etc., and haven’t a clue.

Doesn’t this just all come down to whether or not we can believe there is an actual spiritual world here, separate from our little psyches? Isn’t that what we will always come to in any discussion of this nature? Psych seems so irrelevant to me when we can just take it to the spirits.

And, since you like quiet solitude, (me too!) if you ever get to the NW again I’d be happy to drop you off at the mt. cabin, to pick you up a week (or more) later. Very primitive accommodations but we can put some cl on ice.


You got it. Decentralized power serves no one except the individual who comes into their own. If you ever want to discuss remote healing possibilities, email me dhanson(AT) Not looking for work here, have more than I can handle now, but the new circle starting next month will do a bit of work that way.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dr. Berman,

Just had a pastrami sandwich for lunch! Piero Ferrucci, at least, also advocates ecopsychology. Look for his new book, "Beauty and the Soil".

1:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Art: Careful: pastrami can be ecstatic. Well, addictive, at least.

Dave: Ah, this wd be a very long discussion, and much of it is already available in Wandering God. Shamanism is ecstatic; horizontal experience ("paradox") is not. It's just about what is there. So the shaman may have gotten his info from the plant, but the hallucinogenic experience is nevertheless transcendent, not imminent. It's also the case that shamanism and vertical experience are very recent--can be traced to 1800 B.C. Paradox and the hunter-gatherer world go back at least 40 millennia, more likely 100 millennia.

And I think yer rt, it's about having a separate occult world or not. Shamanism believes in such a thing, depends on it; for the paradoxical tradition, this life is enuf. (The Plains Indians say that the Great Spirit is actually the wind.)

Anyway, I do think it's fairly well spelled out in Wandering God. I'd love to spend 5 hrs online discussing this, but I've got a pastrami sandwich heating up in my little shamanic toaster oven, so I gotta run.


ps: As for anthropologists, it depends on whom u read. The ones who skewer Eliade, Campbell, Jung, and Breuil are particularly convincing, it seems to me.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

Beautiful post.

I can't recall specifically where, but William Blake recognized two kinds of innocence: the "lower" and the "higher." The former is the phase common to all humanity (but normality is so threatened these days I hesitate to state this)on the path towards adulthood, which one typically "loses." There is of course in the US, a denial of this loss, or a frantic attempt to remain in a perpetual childhood where you can grow old without growing up.

Higher innocence is a state of being, spiritual, which can only be approached not through suffering, but "consciously suffering, as in the tradition of Gurdieff-Ouspensky . This of course can be greatly mis interpreted. But an example would be becoming aware of how one becomes a victim of one's unconscious.

Shutting yourself out of your room, with right observation following panic, can become as insightful (you show) as listening to the Ave Maria is moving. The latter is quite easy, I am sure for anyone, yourself; the former is where the real work is, and where spirit is most hidden, and suffering is smelting the ore.

Assagioli, a Florentine, is I think more in the tradition of the Rennaisance Neo-Platonists--a classical "transcendentalism" quite distinct from the Romantic variety which in America, is coincidental with capitalism.

Where Emerson was, there Tony Robbins and George Babbit shall be. Broadcasting in our heads 24/7.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first saw you on a show talking about "Nomadic Living' which struck a cord as I chose to leave all material behind to GRAND mother my six year old grandaughter in Boston. I left all art supplies, jewelry , my massive library and came in just suitcases. I saw my grandson go to church camp and thought how we all basically need just a coupla suitcases....keeping to the basics.

I hate Boston.
Driving here is insane. People do not follow the can constantly have to hit the breaks. People honk constantly if one does not immediately go when the light turns green. I am appalled. They also look shocked when you look into their eyes and say thank you.

I lucked out from leaving the green farms in Missouri to at least be on the ocean front. I still grieve leaving gardens and country folk.

Which in case I do not come back I would like to say that no one addresses the fact that the people who "work" the best .....etc. are not included in the Americans I read about. Grassroot americans are not power greedy and do not make false promises. Attacking america seems to be so many authors in history,sociology and politics favorite focus . It is the being and soul of people who are not in the news that will keep our fabric from being torn here. The media does not tell the whole truth or show it.

Our political climate is a result of human beings damaged at birth from chemicals, lack of real mothering and then thrust into negative school environments. Feelings are repressed. We are not really educated at all by the "system" ..not even the colleges.

As an artist who still does bioenergetic bodywork among growth in other areas I know very few people see beauty. Sometimes not until they draw some of their last breaths do they see and feel beauty and love.

I saw it in my Father who I cared for five years. When I fed him I could feel his love . He told me I was sooo beautiful and kissed my hand often in great appreciation. I was so so beautiful. After years of wishing he would tell me as others had that I was beautiful he did when he SAW me without the defenses and flawed character structure. Now that my grandaughter will see me too..and feel my love.

I still grieve to go but for now this child must have my love and time.

The root of evil happens in childhood. Then we go into the world and are taught by wounded systems and people.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman and Dave,

I'm just armchair philosophizing here, but I think you are both right. This world is enough, but the "spiritual" world (for lack of a better term) is part of it. It is built into the system, so to speak. You do not have to believe in other-worldly gods or an immortal Soul. But hallucinogenic mushrooms, operatic music and falling in love are all products of this world; the trances they temporarily induce are just as "real" (imminent) as our ordinary awareness. The "anima mundi" doesn't care to be so easily dismissed, perhaps.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying this discussion, as it's getting to the root of things. How do we live meaningful lives? What do such lives look like? What relationship do they have to the greater culture around us?

Quite a few writers, including logotherapist Viktor Frankl & Jungian analyst-writer James Hollis (to name just two), have said that our problem is that we seek Happiness rather than Meaning.

Happiness, while lovely, is fleeting, ephemeral; we spend far too much time & energy pursuing it, trying to pin it down & make it ours permanently.

Meaning, on the other hand, is far more deeply grounded. It grows with us, even in the worst of times -- often, in fact, because of the worst of times.

This is what trips up so many, isn't it? They're hungry for some sort of meaning, but they've accepted the false, mass-produced idols of consumer culture, mistaking them for something real. Reisman's "other-directed" personalities with a vengeance!

We've discussed various ways of preserving our individual sanity & struggling for wholeness in a crumbling culture. But is that enough? And there's the danger of seeing ourselves as somehow special & superior -- "Say it loud, I'm an NMI & proud!"

I don't know. I don't have any grand answers. One of the few things I am fairly sure of is the result of growing older, and paring down a lot of grandiose illusions & expections, I guess. I still cherish & believe in things like Beauty, Art, Harmony, Knowledge -- these things are precious & vital to me.

But as I get older, simple kindness, a much more humble appreciation of the natural world & my place in it, a modest & well-composed life -- these things seem more & more important to me. I had dreams of great things as a boy, and that's not necessarily a bad thing ... now, though, so many of those great things seem sadly ridiculous. Is this wisdom?

8:47 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


The thing is, it's modernity that came up w/the idea of the pursuit of meaning. Prior to that, it was just a given--whether through the Church or (if you were a hunter-gatherer) the forest or whatever. The existential idea of making meaning is probably good, as far as it goes (Nausea, by Sartre, remains for me the best treatment of the question); but it's based on the idea of an empty universe. So, a complicated question. I do have the sense of an inherent meaning; in which case, it's not so much a case of creating it as discovering it.


Sorry, I spelled immanent incorrectly. There's a chart towards the end of my bk "Wandering God" you might wanna look at, comparing the Dominant Tradition of the West with the three Counter-Traditions (I think it's in the ch. on Wittgenstein). You might find this helpful.


9:26 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Well, I mispelled Riesman's name myself. :)

Modern biology tells us that much of what we do & how we reason is in our genes. I can't deny that we're all that different from the rest of the animals; in fact, I rather like that being confirmed.

But then we get into questions of being hardwired for religious or ecstatic experience, of creating sytems & beliefs & meanings as naturally as birds create their nests. I loathe reductionism, I don't think of human beings (or other living creatures) as simply biological machines, running according to their programming -- I loathe that "mind-as-computer" model as well!

But is there a meaning other than one we create, however unconsciously? I'd like to think there is, but ...

Even so, isn't calling the universe & existence itself "meaningless" as much a human judgment as calling it "meaningful?"

OK, I'm over my head here, I know. And I don't agonize over these questions as much as I did when I was younger. Perhaps the visceral awareness of mortality has something to do with that. Living life, having love -- that's plenty of meaning!

I do feel or sense an underlying pattern, and marvel at it. Does it really matter if we're making up that pattern? Or does asking if it really matters, really matter?

I know, I know, its so easy to run ourselves in ever-decreasing circles this way! I've got a feeling this was much easier when humanity wasn't so conscious of it, but just lived in it, as fish live in water.

Just wrestling with these questions enriches my life, I find.

10:53 AM  
Blogger marianne said...


Reading your story about your daughter and her visceral reactions to violence in the movies and meanness in general brings me back to the time when my 3 children were young and reacting to the same cultural elements. I wrote about how we raised our kids to be with their feelings about all of this. You might be interested in reading 2 of the articles I wrote about these years.
Google The Focusing Institute. At the top click on Focusing Into…,then children, then article. My article is under my name Marianne Thompson, which is alphabetically listed with the title: “Raising Children to be Real in an Unreal World”
A second article is titled “On Cultivating a Graced Life – The Struggle Within a Culture that Disconnects.” It can be found at The Focusing Institute. Click on whats’s new for the Folio Tribute Issue. Scroll down to Personal Journeys. My hope is this can help you and your daughter.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I read "Wandering God" several years ago, and have reviewed your chart many times since. Is there a paradoxical way of looking that is actually a cross between vertical and horizontal, not just horizontal? Could this be the Hermetic realm of "soul", the place where the inner and outer meet (Novalis)? From such a standpoint we could be at home in all worlds, without being governed by any of them. My armchair is getting worn; time to switch to a rocker?

4:45 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


As far as I can make out, paradox doesn't involve any transcendence, or ecstatic component. It seems to me a very different type of experience. But I made sure to say, regarding ecstasy, that we can't really repress it; we just need to be careful of it. It has a very addictive pull, the more so since the shamanic insight tends to be one of supposedly absolute certainty. Hence the irresistible quality of Nazism during the 30s, for example (which I talk about in Coming to Our Senses).


6:29 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

As my friends on this blog discuss man's search for meaning, most Americans concern themselves with taking sides on issues such as whether Obama is a muslim socialist, whether aliens have visited us in the last year, and whether or not the rapture is near.

This site is certainly an oasis for me. There may be no balm in gilead, but there is generally a smile on my face when I read many of the comments here.

Humans are distinct in the animal kingdom in that a great deal of our brain development happens when we are outside of our mothers. The salience of culture, environment, etc. on our behavior is therefore wired down deep, and perhaps the search for meaning is just a side effect of a brain that evolved to function effectively in a social environment.

Agree with Tim, that kindness and simplicity become more and more cherished as I get older. My old man used to say that the only measurement that matters is the size of your heart.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Joe,

Thanks again for writing in; I always enjoy what u have to say.

One exercise I like to do is check into what's big in the news on Obama going to Martha's Vineyard, everybody all agog about a mosque near Ground Zero, Lindsay Lohan's stint in jail, etc etc. Teddy Roosevelt usta say that the only thing worse than a hard heart was a soft head; he should have only lived another century. Meanwhile, CNN did have an interesting article on a report from the Census Bureau, indicating that 43% of Americans over age 18 are single, and 27% of all dwellings are single-person, up ten percent from 1970. (According to Olds and Schwartz, in The Lonely American, the figure for New York City is nearly 50%.) These figures must represent the highest indices of loneliness worldwide; I really doubt there is a sadder or lonelier population than the American one. Then, when you add to this the fact that most of them are waiting for the Rapture, or are in a tizzy over the location of a mosque, you get some slight idea of the depth of the do-do we are actually in. I haven't read it yet, but somebody recommended a book by Bruce Fein entitled "American Empire Before the Fall" that's gotta be relevant to all this. Except that we are *in* the fall, right now; this is what falls look like: lonely, alienated people with their heads filled with meat, and a government that has no idea as to what it's doing.


11:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Friends,

I'm embarrassed for having missed out on this wonderful conversation; going over the comments to the last two posts has really been nourishing. Thanks to all of you.

I was wondering if I could add another turn to the conversation ... what the hell is going on with philosophy today?

As many of you may know, the study of philosophy in the Academy split up in the early 19th cent. into two traditions: one more self-and-its-problems centered (the Hegelian trad., very roughly), and the other more concepts-and-physical-world oriented (the Kantian or "neo-Kantian" trad., very roughly). The former is sometimes called the "Continental" tradition (Hegel, Sartre, Heidegger, et al.), while the latter is known as the "Analytic" tradition (with Russell, Wittgenstein, Rawls et al. -- Witt being exceptional).

These days, unsurprisingly, it's the Analytic tradition that dominates philosophy in the Anglo-American sphere, which is unsurprising: it sees itself (quite consciously) as the heir to the Enlightenment tradition -- only with better toys (more sophisticated sciences, better experimental apparatus, etc.).

Along with its neo-Enlightenment pretensions comes this "spherical" assumption: that analysis -- pure value-free analytical mechanisms operating on the value-laden concepts, put forward by inquiring minds, about the objective structure of the world, and the self and its society -- is the only true philosophical pursuit.

Absolutely everything else throughout the history of ideas is then sucked into this ahistorical analytical model, and out comes the non-value-judgment: those poor philosophers [thinkers] of the past just didn't have a clue about [physics, cognitive science, etc.], and so while on one level it might make "good literature", it is certainly something we moderns know better not to call true or wise.

Thus we have this kind of bs plastered on the NYTimes, on its sad "philosophy blogs" (or "bogs")...

(I like the skull of Reny Descartes there; are they trying to be funny?)

I just get such a nauseous feeling when I read these eggheads. Trouble is, I guess they're "just doing their job", which amounts to a profound inability to see the contours of their Anglo-American sphere; and they're teaching students how not to see it either.

I think it was Marcuse who tried to show that, in the end, "analysis" (of this neo-Enlightenment variety), while indispensable for true thinking, is easily just a manifestation of what ails us, and so it ends up finally inoculating us, as it were, to the real problems.

I'd like to suggest that this philosophical tradition (including the Continentals, tho differently) is part of the new orthodoxy -- the High Church in this medieval period -- for which what we are talking about here (and the stuff Marcuse, Heidegger, Rollo May, Wittgenstein, Curtis White, Thoreau, etc. etc. were/are talking about) is the heresy, the stuff you're not able or allowed to speak about (see MB's CTOS, of course).

As Wittgenstein realized (esp. for the Analytic trad.), language is the trap you're trying to escape, analysis the bait in the trap. Tho once you've escaped, you're really back to using language just as before -- but now, to paraphrase Wally Stevens, You are the word, Your Body is the word ("Be Thou, Be Thou" he says in "Mozart, 1935").

Through the ecstatic rupture (vertical), the demons you fought are now seen to be the angles freeing you (horizontal), as Meister Eckhart said somewhere. I think this is the form of paradox we have to live with (the paradox contains a paradox).

But will these guys ever get it? Not likely if you've got an office in an institution, publishing or perishing, etc. etc. Not likely that is, if you're living in the "Culture of Death" (Pope JP 2).

Pax Vobiscum,
Mike Cifone.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps: regarding that last thought, I urge all of u to read George Packer's essay on the U.S. Senate, "The Empty Chamber," in the Aug. 9 issue of the New Yorker. He should have called it "Buffoons on Parade." The article incorrectly labels the health care and financial 'reform' bills as victories, but other than that pegs the meaninglessness of Senate activity pretty well. Here's my favorite paragraph:

"The Senate will remain a sclerotic, wasteful, unhappy body. The deepest source of its problems is not rules and precedents, but, rather, its human beings, who have created a culture where Tocqueville's 'lofty thoughts' and 'generous impulses' have no place."

4:42 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps2: Harper's Magazine, Sept.
2010, p. 11, reports that in 2009
51 New York City bus drivers filed assault reports after being spat on by a passenger.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Dr. Berman,

"the shamanic insight tends to be one of supposedly absolute certainty."...???

The few authentic shamans I have known don't seem to reflect that, in fact they rely on spiritual helpers who are quite unpredictable.

I thought the Nazis were Christians who absolutely thought they represented a superior race. I don't think they got that from the spirits.

This vertical/horizontal/transcendent/immanent/ecstatic discussion runs me in circles. I think I'm driving a Model T into prehistory.

I think we can experience paradox if we work at it and I think the ecstatic part of the experience leaves as soon as we apply language to it but something remains. (Zerzan anyone?)

If shamanic methods can get us to a state of participatory consciousness while retaining a tiny shred of observing ego so we can get back and function in whatever world we find ourselves in, it seems like a good idea, to me.

But, maybe my rocker is broken. Careful, Art.

I realize this blog is not about shamanism, so I'll shut up.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Maybe it's semantic, but yer talking about something that I just don't recognize as shamanism. It's like this:

1. I too have spoken to practitioners; their approach suggests certainty.
2. My own experiences have been ones of immense clarity; nuance and ambiguity were not part of it.
3. The historical and anthropological evidence for the certainty aspect is huge. I provide a fair amount in CTOS and WG, but of course there is more.

That being said, I think this is a useless conversation; we'll just be going around in circles.

In addition, I hafta confess the topic bores me to tears. I spent roughly 20 yrs on it; at present, it's abt as appetizing to me as a bowl of (very) rancid oatmeal.

The one aspect that does still intrigue me, however, is the desire to be healed, to become whole. A Mazatec shaman once said something about, "I am he who knits together." We are all broken, we seek wholeness. To me, shamanism is for the most part a pseudo-solution to this problem. This inner emptiness accounts for so much of American history, and the contemporary American scene, that I find it dazzling. "Looking for love in all the wrong places" could well be the obituary of the United States. But in this regard, I think Lacan is more relevant than shamanism.

Anyway, if we could agree to disagree, I'd be happy as the proverbial clam (a very silent creature).


12:15 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Dr. Berman,

Just a couple of brief things and then I’ll get out of your hair.

Even in a discussion about shamanism you feel compelled to bring in the stupid, empty Americans, in their stupid country. I agree, but talk about boring! You’re like a broken record on the subject. I stopped reading long ago. Furthermore, the irony is that there is probably more interest in shamanism in Europe than in America.

28 years of study and work with people from all walks of life and many countries and not one has said that shamanism, or a discussion of it, is boring. You are one lofty fella!

I understand why Lacan would be more relevant for you than shamanism. Don’t know much about him but a family friend (now gone) was trained by Menninger. Another, still here, by Anna Freud. (and I think my Psych.wife likes Lacan) I’ve mentioned our friend who teaches at Cambridge. I’m surrounded by thinking and talking, some of it above my head, but I understand boring.

I prefer smoke, fire, sound, motion and the bodies. The circle calls me home. Haven’t felt empty for years.

Funny. The first and only blog in which I ever participated was yours. It all started with a discussion of uneducated people who do stuff to keep things working, and intellectuals who talk and write. In a way we’re back to that. I’m hanging up, with thanks and respect.

Be well. I love your books. Call me if your toaster goes down.

2:12 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Oh, for chrissake! I just read an interview with Piero Ferrucci, conducted by the health guru Gary Null. As it turns out, Ferrucci is a vegan. He even implied that raw fruits and vegetables are more beautiful than animal foods, and therefore more healthy. You tried to warn me about the lack of respect for delicatessens among Transpersonalists, but would I listen?

P.S. Please, no more references to "meatheads". If anything, Americans have mashed potatoes for brains.

P.P.S. Regarding "going around in circles": maybe you and Dave could participate in a drum circle together someday. Don't worry, I'll lend you my djembe.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


For some reason your last letter came thru as spam. There is no 'publish' option in that case; I had to click on 'not spam', but that didn't put the letter thru. Anyway, sorry abt that.


I'm beginning to think maybe you could use much less shamanism, much more therapy. Hey, nobody's got a gun to yer head: if you don't wanna read this blog, u don' have to. You'd be right about American stupidity being boring IF other critics were saying it, but they're not. Chomsky and Michael Moore (e.g.) think that an intelligent, rational public has had the wool pulled over their eyes, and once this wool is removed, this vast collection of bright Americans will spring into left-wing action. Tocqueville warned abt the problem of stupidity in a democracy, but this part of his work tends to get ignored. The issue of American stupidity needs to get emphasized because that is what a commodity culture does to people--it's not just some crank complaint about the state of the union. The stupidity factor also renders all these great plans for the future that The Nation and others have quite moot. As one bumper sticker I saw a few years ago put it, "You Can't Fix Stupid." Touche. Anyway, if this is boring to you, as I said, tune out! Myself, I'm hoping that folks like Chomsky and Moore will start talking about the raw material we've got to work with here; it does go to the heart of the matter of imperial decline etc., even tho it's quite unpopular, and politically incorrect, to discuss these things. (There are in fact a number of monographs on American stupidity--one even called "American Idiot"--but they are isolated studies; they don't make connections with the general political decay we are facing.) Anyway, for all these reasons, I have to agree with Gore Vidal, who said in an interview four years ago, regarding the United States, "Stupidity excites me." Well, me too. A much vaster, and more politically relevant topic, finally, than shamanism, it seems to me.

As for shamanism, it's boring to me only because I spent so much time on it. Speaking of Chomsky, he once said that if yer a professor and are lecturing from the same notes 20 years into yer career, it was time for u to retire. Which is what I did, from shamanism. Ever hear of moving on to another topic? It's hardly abt being lofty. Anyway, if shamanism floats your boat, knock yerself out. Why bother with (boring) Lacan, after all?

My toaster is jus' fine, amigo.

Best of luck,

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

As much as I love this sort of discussion, it does occur to me that it can become a kind of trap. Referring to Jung once more (his work was a real lifesaver for me when I was in my 20s), didn't he say that organized religion was often a defense against direct religious or spiritual experience? In the same way, I wonder if too much grappling with questions about the meaning of life can become a defense against direct experience of life.

Which is why I think the discussion about collapsing, decaying culture & general dumbing down is highly pertinent to questions about the meaning of life. In the end, we've got to live in this world; and what's going on every day affects us, no matter what beautiful & ornate & esoteric defenses we build for ourselves.

Didn't Jung also warn that delving into the Unconscious was a dangerous thing, as we could all too easily become fascinated & overwhelmed by it? When all is said & done, it seems to me, he was a doctor, concerned with healing or at least helping people -- the mythic journey, the archetypes, visions, etc., weren't supposed to be an end in themselves, nor were wounded patients supposed to find shelter within them for the rest of their lives. He hoped to make life more bearable & understandable for them, so that they could indeed live reasonably whole & meaningful lives.

I think becoming more aware of the true state of contemporary culture is vital to our well-being & mental health. As a very strong Romantic by innate temperament, I don't dismiss the ecstasies, the visions, the quests for meaning -- I do think they're wonderful & vital -- but I don't want them to become my drug of choice, either. There has to be some sort of balance, something that enables us to live in this world as it is, and see it as it is, to the best of our ability.

When i was younger, I eagerly sought out the solace of the visionary, the esoteric, the ecstatic. Nowadays, if & when it comes to me, I'm happy; but I'm finding deeper satisfaction in watching the woodchuck in our backyard, or simply spending the evening with my wife, or channeling the visionary into art.

I don't crave greatness for myself any more. Seems to me it's much easier to strive to be great, than to be good. Maybe that's been one of America's major problems all along?

(I know I'm not expressing this at all well ...)

3:13 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I did, on a few occasions, wind up in the company of Jungians, and found it depressing. Their "enlightenment" consisted in adoring and quoting the master, or his various disciples. It was a cookie-cutter religion, and they were channeling it, like robots. All of this vertical stuff can so easily become The Path, as u are suggesting, to the detriment of actual life. If I remember correctly, Robertson Davies has a novel about this tendency--maybe it was The Manticore, I read it so long ago--where the protagonist finally has the sense to reject the notion of a Collective Unconscious, and start doing more intelligent things w/his life. Shamanism is useful; it's also a way to ram one's head up one's ass and roll around like a donut, proclaiming the greatness of one's vision. Barf, I say; barf.


4:16 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


A vegan! God, that sucks. I frankly doubt whether anyone not seriously into corned beef and chopped liver has anything meaningful to say in this world. But I can't start saying "mashed potato heads"; it's too much of a mouthful. In addition, I suspect the contents of 99.99% of American heads actually consists of fried rice. O for a nationwide biopsy dragnet operation conducted by the NIH...


4:28 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Friends,

I'm embarrassed for having missed out on this wonderful conversation; going over the comments to the last two posts has really been nourishing. Thanks to all of you.

I was wondering if I could add another turn to the conversation ... what the hell is going on with philosophy today? Unsurprisingly, these days it's the so-called “Analytic” tradition that dominates philosophy in the Anglo-American technocratic sphere, seeing itself as the heir to the Enlightenment tradition -- only with better toys (more sophisticated sciences, better experimental apparatus, modern propositional logic, etc.).

Along with its neo-Enlightenment pretensions comes this "spherical" assumption: that analysis and “clear thinking” is in itself the only true philosophical pursuit. Absolutely everything else is then sucked into this ahistorical analytical apparatus, and out comes this sweeping non-value-judgment: those poor philosophers [thinkers] of the past just didn't have a clue about [physics, cognitive science, etc.], and so while on one level it might make "good literature", it is certainly something we moderns know better not to call true or wise.

Thus we have this kind of bs plastered on the NYTimes, on its sad "philosophy blogs" (or "bogs"):
(I like the skull of Reny Descartes there; are they trying to be funny?)

I guess they're "just doing their job", which amounts to a profound inability to see the contours of their Anglo-American sphere; and they're teaching students how not to see it either. I think it was Marcuse who tried to show that, in the end, "analysis" (of this neo-Enlightenment variety), while needed, is easily just a manifestation of what ails us, and so it ends up finally inoculating us to the real problems.

As Wittgenstein realized (esp. for the Analytics), language is the trap you're trying to escape, but analysis is the bait in the trap. Though once you've escaped, you're really back to using language just as before -- this time, to paraphrase Wally Stevens, You are the word, Your Body is the word. But this is the heresy to the new technocratic orthodoxy, committed to “clarity” and “results” and “objective measures” of this or that.

I think this is the form of paradox with which we have to live now: the paradox (escape from language through it: “vertical” paradox) contains a paradox (return to language itself: “horizontal” paradox). But will these guys ever get it? Not likely if you've got an office in an institution, publishing or perishing, etc. etc. Not likely, that is, if you're living in the "Culture of Death" (Pope JP 2).

Pax Vobiscum,
Mike Cifone.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I don't find shamanism boring at all, but I don't think psychology is irrelevant either. Psyche is where we spend most of our time, and most of us live in broken urban environments. Tim alluded to therapy's goal: to "live reasonably whole and meaningful lives". If Dave can accomplish this through shamanism, or living closer to nature than I suspect most of us do, then that's all that really matters.

Mike has repeatedly emphasized the importance of "embodiment". None of us are hunter-gatherers, but we all have bodies. Happy soul working, everyone; and save some time for dancing!

3:37 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


Well said!

The balance I spoke of is a difficult one. I like that we're able to create our own narratives & explanatory systems -- it's a freedom most of our ancestors didn't have (and probably didn't know they lacked, I suppose).

But it's also a perilous freedom, isn't it? A culture does need some overall narrative, one that comfortably includes most of its people, and that (ideally) calls for the best from them. Unfortunately, the one we've got for America right now is really the lowest common denominator, and a greedy, narcissistic one at that.

Does the freedom to pursue a personal meaning & narrative help create that lowest common denominator? I fully agree with cutting through the "psychic smog," the empty consumerist torrent that engulfs us every waking moment (and intrudes into our dreams, no doubt). I certainly don't want to be assimilated by that collective!

But how long can that personal meaning survive without something larger to contain or at least sustain it? Previous cultures had official outlets for those who didn't fit into the mainstream -- monasteries, hermitages, Bohemian life, etc. Do we have any of that now? One that the mainstream culture will accept?

What troubles me most is the nature of the current mainstream, which either dismisses & ignores those who don't buy into it, or commodify their dissent & sell it at a huge profit. Even totalitarian governments paid its dissenters the twisted respect of treating them like threats & taking them seriously. I guess it's easier to push back against a stone wall than a cloud of cotton candy.

I'm juggling too many thoughts here, and not quite keeping them all in the air, I know.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Art and Tim,

Yes, and yes!

Tim, I want to further emphasize what you said: the interesting thing is that India (esp.) and China both seemed to accept the counter-cultural path in a way that managed to skirt around the Manicheanism that, I'd argue, keeps the counter-culture dialectically linked to the mainstream.

That is to say, my thesis is this: given that the Indian and Chinese minds are far more tolerant of differences, and, relatedly, are far more tolerant of ambiguity and indirectness (esp. Taoism and Chan/Buddhism), mainstream vs. counter-culture is not caught in the same form of the heresy/orthodoxy dialectic as we find in the West (might be due to the fact that there was less West in the East than East in the West -- see CTOS, last chapters).

In India, as an example, the culture *sustained* the wandering ascetic tradition (a form of paradox or horizontality it seems); almsgiving to them was a social *duty*, an expectation, and therefore a profound acceptance. Let's not forget the fourth "purushartha" or aim of human life, enshrined in the orthodox systems (the so-called 6 classical "darshana"): the solitary spiritual pursuit of the renunciant, the forest-dweller.

This was basically what Buddha did (become a renunciant, fulfilling his social duty, in a sense), and what the ancinent Brihadaranyaka Upanishad was a kind of "manual" for (and which, we think, Buddha himself knew an early version of). Out of this sort of tradition came the explosions of Buddhism and Jainism and the proliferation of various religious visions called by a single term, "Hinduism".

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


That's what I've been wondering: is such a path viable today? I'm remembering a couple of lines from Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends, quoting Herman Kahn (I think) about the hippies "being absorbed into the general relaxation." For the most part, that's exactly what happened, alas. The desire for an alternative path was there, but not the roots & endurance for the long haul. And it truly pains me to have to say that, recalling my youthful, naive hopes.

But even if alternatives can be developed & maintained, perhaps on a smaller basis -- a few people, just a couple, even an individual -- we still have to live in this society, which means being constantly aware of its countless enticements & lures, which means expending a lot of energy just to try & be one's own self. That can easily become defining one's self by what we oppose & fight, rather than by a genuinely positive alternative. It can also be horribly tiring!

You know, I don't mean to sound so pessimistic about this -- by nature, I'm actually quite optimistic, still expecting something good to be appearing just around the corner -- but maybe that pessimism is just realism now?

This morning I stumbled across a quote from a favorite comic book writer of my youth, Steve Gerber, who said in 1978:

“Something has happened to this country in the past 10 years or so. We’ve become much more willing to accept anything again, it’s hard to escape the clichés Madison Avenue or the Government shoves down our throats. The truth has become unbearable to contemplate. There’s a terrible apathy that’s engendered a new movement back to the Self. The society seems to have accepted the notion that by simply becoming oblivious to what’s happening in the world outside our skins, the horror will go away. It’s not going to go away.”

I think that sums up the danger of sliding into the fuzzy meliorism of so much New Age thought quite succinctly.

And yet a reasonably whole & meaningful life still seems worth striving for, doesn't it?

And maybe I'm thinking about this waaaaay too much, instead of simply living my life, I don't know ...

1:11 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...


... and that's just it: live your life. At the end of the day, that's all that Taoism or Buddhism teach: just live your life, with every detail lived excruciatingly ablaze. Really, it's just that simple.

I'd like to talk to you and Art more about how we could conjugate Berman's Wandering God analysis for Eastern Civ., but that's a conversation I should probably have with you over email.

In any case, I don't think you're thinking of this way too much; if anything, we need more serious thinking on this score.


7:55 PM  
Blogger E. E. Heart said...

Hello lovely fellows,

I have been enjoying your blog; since picking up Dr. Berman's book, 'Wandering God' a week ago. I just today thought to write in and only now remembered to share, if I may, the first para from a ten page essay I wrote on 10/03/08. p.s. I laugh so much to the chopped liver humor!

True nature, by its very nature, is simple truth, therefore, simple to grasp. Unnaturalness is complex, is backward moving, is discouraging, is difficult to restore to beauty, is a wound, is a void or loneliness, is weakness, and is restlessness, as when desolation occurs. Naturalness is simple, is foreword moving, is inspiring, is beauty, is completeness, is love, is strength, and is contentment, as when a part of nature is observed. Nature is relaxing to reside within and is a healing writing topic. Unnaturalness is a waste to reside within and is a difficult writing topic. To reside within and attempt to solve and to write about the complex problems created by un-natural acts/ deeds is a difficult, yet necessary, wasteful task. Every single added unnatural object, element, thought, action, or inaction supports artificiality and lessens beauty.

5:39 PM  
Blogger dheyjim said...

Sometimes , these kinds of events ( dark ages ) are the time that person needs someone who specialize in
,psychosynthesis because this is the time where people start to think wrong about what causes the surroundings to be like that .

5:39 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home